Endangered Species Have the Coolest Tongues

Laysan albatross adult feeding a chick
Laysan Albatross Feeds A Chick.

Albatross have pointy tongues. Humpback whales have tongues that are the size of Volkswagen bugs. The tips of Hawaiian monk seals’ tongues are bifurcated, a fancy word for split.

Pretty cool, huh. And that’s just tongues. Wait until we get to the throats.

Today is recognized as Endangered Species Day.

The goal of the day is to raise awareness about the importance of protecting endangered species and the everyday actions we can take to help prevent them from going extinct.

Extinct: Wiped out, destroyed, gone. Trilobites are extinct. So, too, are dinosaurs. And, more recently, passenger pigeons and the Caribbean monk seal.

Back in 1973, Congress declared that “Various species of fish, wildlife, and plants in the United States have been rendered extinct as a consequence of economic growth and development untempered by adequate concern and conservation.” The law went on to declare that species of “fish, wildlife, and plants have been so depleted in numbers that they are in danger of or threatened with extinction.” According to the Endangered Species Coalition, “In the United States alone, scientists estimate that more than 500 species have disappeared in the past 200 years.” Since its enactment, the Endangered Species Act has afforded protections to more than 1,400 species in the United States.

Personally, I’d rejoice if not another species was ever added to the ESA if it meant we humans had finally equated the success of the natural world with our own.

You won’t find Laysan albatross on the list of species protected by the ESA. Yet. But rising oceans due to climate change are expected to eliminate a significant portion of the seabird’s low-lying habitat in the north Pacific where 99% of Laysan albatross breed. This makes the small, re-emerging colonies on the main Hawaiian Islands of O’ahu and Kaua’i–like the ones I monitor–all the more important.

Humpback whale breaching
Breaching Humpback Whale.

At the other end of the endangered species discussion are Humpback whales.

After four decades of protected status and a resulting rebounding population, the 45-foot marine mammal may soon be de-listed, joining the ranks of once endangered, once protected species like Peregrine falcons, Gray whales, and Bald eagles that have staved off extinction.

But smack in the middle, staring extinction in the face with its own cute friendly mug is the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal with its bifurcated tongue. An estimated 1,100 live in the Hawaiian Islands with 85% of this population in the remote Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. They face numerous threats, including the same habitat loss as Laysan albatross due to climate change; increasing competition for limited food resources; infectious disease, parasites, and toxins; male aggression, shark predation; entanglements with marine debris; deleterious interactions with humans such as getting hooked on fishing lines and boat strikes.

We lost a Hawaiian monk seal earlier this week to one of these threats.

On Monday, a year-old male monk seal, tagged F22, was found dead here on Kauai. Preliminary necropsy results suggest death due to a propeller and vessel strike. This is the kind of news that’s hard to swallow, especially when you’ve spent hours at the beach “pup-sitting,” as I did last year with F22. However, the spoonful of sugar that makes this devastating news more palatable is this: The very monk seal who gave birth to F22 last year pupped F22’s sibling early this morning.

Laysan albatross chick yawning
Yawning Laysan Albatross Chick.

Speaking of swallowing, I promised some interesting scientific tidbits south of their tongues. Let’s start with Laysan albatross. They can expand the muscles in their throats to ingest the awkward-sized yummy squid it likes to eat—and to yawn. The first time I saw a chick’s neck grow round like a golf ball, I remember thinking, “Whoa, how cool is that?”

But the real experts at this throat-expanding technique are the 45-foot Humpbacks. Twelve to 30 pleats run two-thirds the length of a whale’s body and expand like an accordion-folded fan during foraging to gulp enormous mouthfuls of water. The irony is these oversized mammals with the big maws only eat tiny fish and krill, because their throats are the size of grapefruits.

And the Hawaiian monk seal pup that entered the air-breathings world today will—with luck—one day weigh 400 to 600 pounds and display a neck so fat that pro wrestlers and football players will envy it. But instead of bashing its fellow species, Hawaiian monk seals use the strong muscles of their necks in the search for food, flipping over rocks that weigh as much as 70 pounds apiece to do so.

Pregnant Hawaiian monk seal
A Pregnant Hawaiian Monk Seal.

As a docent with several wildlife groups on Kaua’i, I often get asked, “What’s it matter if [fill in the name of an endangered species] goes extinct. As Carl Sagan and many scientists throughout the ages have said, “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” While I cannot necessarily draw a direct line to the survival of a particular species and my own as a human being, I know all species are interlinked. I believe all are important for all the others.

But even if you don’t believe to the extent I do that our very survival is dependent upon that of all nature around us, I ask this very simple question: How boring would our world be without a large diversity of life like Laysan albatross, Humpback whales, and Hawaiian monk seals?

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